The far right is on the rise across the globe and the gains made by women since the 1960s are in their sights. The leader of the world’s most powerful nation is a proud misogynist, boasts about the sexual harassment of women and has declared himself intent on abolishing abortion rights across the United States. Donald Trump was elected as a Republican candidate, but he ran on a right-wing populist platform and his presidency has emboldened far-right and anti-abortion movements globally. The far-right governments of Fidesz in Hungary and the League in Italy are pushing the most conservative vision of the family, with propaganda machines urging women to have more babies. In Brazil, newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro has demonstrated his approach to women’s rights by closing the department for human rights and creating a Department for Family Values headed up by Damares Alves who has said: “We want a Brazil without abortion”.1
In Poland, the far-right Law and Justice Party has backed increased restrictions to abortion rights, already limited by some of the most prohibitory laws in Europe. Mass protests blocked the changes, but the government is continuing to try to destroy even limited exceptions. In Hungary, Fidesz doesn’t even want anyone to learn about women’s rights, let alone have access to them—it has shut down degree and postgraduate courses in gender studies by abolishing their state funding. The party’s founder László Kövér declared in 2015: “We don’t want the gender craziness. We don’t want to make Hungary a futureless society of man-hating women and feminine men living in dread of women, and considering families and children only as barriers to self-fulfillment”.2
The League, as part of a coalition government in Italy, now shapes policy, and its leader Matteo Salvini, a rising star of the European far right, is unashamed about his enthusiasm about rehabilitating Benito Mussolini’s fascist legacy. Salvini said he was proud to welcome the right-wing World Congress of Families to the Italian city of Verona this year. The congress aims to “defend the natural family as the only fundamental and sustainable unit of society” and is virulently anti-abortion. Verona is one of a number of northern Italian cities that has declared itself “pro-life” in the face of militant pro-choice protests, and given financial support to anti-abortion organisations. Access to abortion across Italy has become increasingly limited despite the fact that it has been legal for over 40 years.3
But it is in the US that the threat of the clock being turned back on women’s rights is greatest. Trump has already delivered on his much advertised commitment to his voting base among the religious right to install a right-wing anti-abortion majority in the Supreme Court with two appointments, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. As such positions are traditionally for life, Trump has ensured an anti-abortion majority in the court that will likely last long after he has left the White House. The recent wave of new legislation restricting, or abolishing in the case of the state of Alabama, abortion rights in several states is a sign of the strength and confidence of the anti-abortion, religious and far right in the US, which had already made significant inroads into women’s rights before Trump’s election.4 These laws are designed to be so draconian that they get challenged in legal cases that will ultimately reach the Supreme Court. There, the anti-abortion lobby hopes the judges will overturn the Roe vs Wade decision, which has enshrined a woman’s right to abortion across the US since 1973. If this succeeds, it will not only have catastrophic consequences for the 85 million women of childbearing age in the US itself, but have a profound impact internationally. It will become a model for far-right and fascist parties looking to destroy women’s hard won rights.
These attacks have not gone unopposed. Mass women’s marches met Trump’s inauguration across the US and the world, and the pro-choice movement continues to challenge him. On 21 May thousands protested outside the Supreme Court and in cities across the US over the latest attacks in Alabama, Georgia and elsewhere.
Not content with encouraging challenges to the right to abortion, Trump has been blocking funding to Planned Parenthood women’s health services, and his “global gag” order, a more extensive version than under previous Republican presidents, denies international aid to all organisations that offer any abortion advice and services, even if funded independently. He recently appointed Rebecca Kleefisch, a conservative former TV anchor who says women should be subservient to their husbands, as the new head of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. Kleefisch has also said equal marriage was a “slippery slope…at what point are we going to OK marrying inanimate objects? Can I marry this table, or this, you know, clock? Can we marry dogs? This is ridiculous”.5
We have seen such attacks before. Far-right and fascist movements have long been associated with male leaders promoting subservient roles for women, enforcing traditional roles within the family and opposing abortion. This article will look at the ideology of past fascist movements around the question of women and compare them with the far-right organisations growing today. Some features are similar but others are different. Unlike the past we see a number of women leading significant far-right parties, and significantly some claim to champion gender equality and use progressive language to justify and promote their racist agenda against Muslims.
For the purposes of this article I will use the term far-right to cover a spectrum of political currents today including fascist, far-right and racist populist parties, but excluding traditional conservative parties.
Did fascism appeal to women in the 1920s and 1930s?
The fascist regimes of Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s promoted an ideology about women that judged their most important role in society as mothers in the traditional family. Women were told that their priority was to raise the next generation of workers and soldiers, the bigger the family the better.
In Germany the Nazi leadership was entirely male—there was not a single woman in Hitler’s Reich cabinet, which was made up of 20 departmental ministers plus 12 without portfolio. The Nazis did seek to win the support of women, but on the basis that their position was always to be completely subservient to men. As Donny Gluckstein points out, such ideology meant that women didn’t readily join: “One striking feature was the very low proportion of women who joined the NSDAP. Between 1925 and 1932 they formed just 7.8 percent of all joiners, falling to just 5.1 percent by 1933”.6 Hitler said: “If the man’s world is said to be the state, his struggle, his readiness to devote his powers to the service of the community, then it may perhaps be said that the woman’s is a smaller world. For her world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home”.7
For many women in 1920s Germany, this “smaller” world was one they were hoping to escape. Women over 20 had won the right to vote in 1918, and they outnumbered men in the electorate after the slaughter of the First World War; in the inter-war years there were roughly two million more women than men in Germany.8 The Marxist psychologist Alice Rühle-Gerstel, an associate of Leon Trotsky, argued at the time that during the years of the Weimar Republic, 1918-33:
Women began to cut an entirely new figure. A new economic figure who went out into public economic life as an independent worker or wage-earner entering the free market that had up until then been free only for men. A new political figure who appeared in the parties and parliaments, at demonstrations and gatherings. A new physical figure who not only cut her hair and shortened her skirts but began to emancipate herself altogether from the physical limitations of being female.9
Divorce rates rose, as did the use of birth control and the number of abortions as a layer of women lived more liberated lives. During the Weimar years, Berlin, the bastion of the left, had the lowest birthrate in the world.10 However, it’s important not to overestimate how many women these changes affected; life did not alter significantly in small towns and rural areas.
The Nazis saw women controlling their reproductive rights as a threat to the hallowed institution of the family. As economic crisis gripped Germany, they fought to reinforce the centrality of the family with propaganda directed at women that focused on Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). As Marxist historian Tim Mason has written: “The more intense the economic and political pressures became in the 1930s, the greater the exploitation of labour and the concentration of capital, the more arbitrary, inaccessible and incomprehensible the sources of public power—the more important was the reconciliatory function of the family”.11
Increasing the birthrate remained a priority for the Nazis. Hitler introduced a Law for the Encouragement of Marriage in 1933, which offered loans to newlywed couples if the woman stopped working. The repayments were cut for each child born.12 If you had a particularly large family you were awarded the Mother’s Cross, if you had no children after five years of marriage, from 1939 your taxes were increased.13 It’s hard to comprehend how the Nazis could bring about such a reversal of women’s roles. The key factor was the Nazis’ ability to break the working class, atomising both women and men. The destruction of collective society led many women to look inwards and to see the home and family as a place of sanctuary.
There was another important aspect to the Nazis’ ideology on women, the family and fertility and that was the relationship between reproduction and the promotion of “racial purity” and eugenics. Once in power, the Nazis did not just expect women to stay at home, wear traditional clothes with no adornments and be good housewives. They wanted the reproduction of Aryan babies. To fulfill this demand some of those who fitted the Nazis’ racial requirements were even expected to “breed” with SS officers in the Lebensborn (Wellspring of Life) initiative.14
The ideas of eugenics, in which favoured sections of society are encouraged to procreate and those deemed “undesirable” are denied the right to have children, originated in Britain in the early 20th century and were taken up enthusiastically by the US government before being driven to the terrible logic of the Holocaust by the Nazis. It was only after the experience of the rise of fascism in Europe that eugenics lost its mainstream support.15 But the interlinking of women’s fertility and racist policies is one that still has a legacy within some far-right parties today.
So did such propaganda win the Nazis votes from women? Some historians have accepted Hitler’s claims that: “Women have always been among my staunch supporters”.16 The vote for the Nazi party before 1929 was so small it is impossible to talk about a substantive vote by either men or women. From 1930 onwards there is some evidence of rising numbers of women voting Nazi. The historian Thomas Childers produced a major study on Nazi voters and claims that they made “enormous gains” among women in 1932.17 Other historians’ research shows, however, that this is overstated. Many woman voters supported the Nazis, just as men did, because of their economic and racial policies, they had voted for conservative and religious parties in the past, or sometimes family ties were a reason.18 Using electoral data from 12 German cities in 1930, 1932 (July), 1932 (November) and 1933, Helen Boak reveals that the Nazis did make more headway among female voters than male. In most, but not all, cities women did vote Nazi in greater numbers. However these figures must be tempered by the fact that there are no figures available for the so-called “Red Cities” such as Berlin and Hamburg.19
Much of this picture was mirrored in fascist Italy. Under Mussolini the role of women became an important part of fascist propaganda. The regime also needed to reverse falling birth rates and motherhood was portrayed as serving the nation and having multiple babies was “elevated to a public role”.20 At the same time Mussolini claimed he would give women more say in society by extending voting rights, which German Marxist Clara Zetkin mocked for its limitations to middle class women. Votes for women were only going to be in municipal elections and even then, “not all women would gain rights…only those who could give evidence of a certain level of education, plus women with ‘war medals’, and women whose husbands possessed a sufficiently large bag of money to pay a certain level of taxes. That’s how he keeps his promise with regard to equal rights for women”.21
In 1933, Mussolini gave a roll call of the country’s most fertile women at a national Mother’s Day rally in Rome.22 Families with seven or more children were entitled to extra benefits, advertising for contraceptives was banned and the punishment for providing abortions was “internal exile” where dissidents were sent to live in remote villages, usually in the south. Unusually men were also punished for not procreating—bachelors faced higher taxes.23 Marriage loans similar to those in Nazi Germany were introduced to “encourage the formation of Italian families and to assure their development.” The minister of education produced a book, The Politics of the Family, in which he stated that “the woman ‘who leaves the domestic enclosure to go to work’ must become ‘the object of public reproach’”.24 Of course there were always women who rejected the regimes’ diktats on their sexual lives. For example, it is estimated that abortion in Italy was “probably running at about 30 percent of births in 1930”.25 Also, neither Hitler nor Mussolini could completely escape the needs of capital for labour power, as millions of women continued to work outside the home, with these numbers increasing during the war. But the fascists’ policies of social control targeted and always disproportionally affected working class and poor women.
This raises the question of the class base of the women who supported fascism. There are limited statistics breaking down the class nature of female support for fascist parties in the 1930s. However, it would be fair to assume that it was similar to the general class base of fascism as outlined by Mark Thomas in the last issue of International Socialism.26 Boak’s study of the NSDAP says that it, “drew its female support from those of society from which it attracted men’s votes, from within the protestant middle classes. It can be assumed that many working women would have voted SPD or even KPD”.27 In her study of women in the far-right and fascist parties between the wars in France, Magali Della Sudda argues that female activists “were mainly women from the middle classes and petty bourgeoisie, sociologically very close to the composition of the same associations as regards men”.28 Another similar study on Italy described:
Educated women from middle class families who approved of the regime. This group at first was relatively small and included some conservative aristocrats, middle class housewives, and school teachers, all of whom saw fascism as a break away from the past. Because of their social condition they were privileged by the dictatorship and possessed more freedom than working women; they therefore transmitted an image of the regime that did not reflect the condition of women from the lower classes.29
It is worth noting that in Britain, fascist and far-right movements were never exclusively male. Rotha Lintorn-Orman launched one of the first fascist movements, the British Fascisti in 1923. It was an upper class organisation—its Fascist Garden Fete in the summer of 1928 was held at Hampton Court.30 Later, in 1932, the launch of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) attracted the support of a number of upper class women, although there was only one woman, Lady Makgill, the organiser of the Blackshirt Women’s Section, among the 18-strong leadership.31 It also attracted some former upper class suffragettes such as Mary Richardson, Norah Elam and Mary Allen, who were united by trenchant anti-communism.32 Eleven women, again many titled and from aristocratic families, stood as BUF candidates in parliamentary elections.33 The youngest daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, Adela, emigrated to Australia and became a founding member of the fascist organisation Australia First.34
Women made up a quarter of Mosley’s supporters throughout the 1930s and, although the BUF’s polemic was about maintaining traditional gender roles, it also called for equal pay for women.35 Women Blackshirts stewarded meetings and took part in marches, and Special Branch observers reported that women made up 27 percent of those attending fascist events.36 A call for women volunteers to train in Jujitsu to be able to throw female Communists out of meetings was heavily oversubscribed as some women were keen to show they were up to the task of imposing their fascist views by force.37 A Women’s Section of the BUF was set up in March 1933, which for a time published a fortnightly paper, the Woman Fascist.38
Ideology that stressed women’s role in the family and eugenics was a reoccurring theme in subsequent far-right and fascist parties in Britain over many decades. They were recycled during the 1970s and 1980s by the National Front (NF). In his book Women and Fascism Martin Durham makes the case that women were a minority, but an active one, within the NF. Involvement was in traditional areas such as fundraising and administrative support, but also included standing in elections. For example, women made up around 10 percent of the NF’s parliamentary candidates in the four general elections of the 1970s.39 The NF used the developing interest of the far right in biological and “scientific” justifications for women’s subordination. In 1978 the NF’s newspaper Spearhead published translated extracts from an essay written by Alain de Benoist, founder of the French Nouvelle Droite, on “The Feminine Condition”. The endocrinology of male and female brains and psychoanalysis were drawn on to prove that men were naturally dominant.40 This mirrors the rise of “biological” or so called “scientific racism”, now rebranded by the far right as “human biodiversity”, to claim scientific evidence to justify racism. Decades on, the writings of de Benoist on identity and nationalism have become key reference points for the most recent generation of what has been coined the “alt-right” in the US and Europe today.
Is the far right today a movement of men?
Today’s far-right movements are often portrayed as an entirely male political force, sometimes referred to as Männerparteien (men’s parties) by some academics.41 The street violence associated with fascist and far-right groups is assumed to be part of the toxic masculinity of angry white men. This violence is seen as naturally flowing from gender, rather than being rooted in the political strategy of intimidation and control that such movements create. In contrast, violence is always seen as an aberration in women, although the reality is that such violence alienates most men too.
The picture of gender and far-right groups internationally is complex and fluid. Most such organisations are still led by men and have a majority male membership, but not exclusively. Dutch academic Cas Mudde makes the point that the far right looks male-dominated when compared with left-wing organisations, but argues that when compared to other conservative parties the gender balance is not so dissimilar. What is striking is to look at the number of leading women within the far right globally. Marine Le Pen, leader of National Rally (NR), formally the Front National (FN) in France, has the highest profile but there is also Alice Weidel, leader of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and Frauke Petry, who was AfD’s co-leader until 2017 and is now an independent. Beata Szydło is deputy prime minister of Poland and vice-chairman of the Law and Justice Party; Siv Jensen is leader of Norway’s Progress Party; Sylvi Listhaug is one its two deputy leaders and is tipped to be the next leader, and Pia Kjærsgaard is a co-founder and former leader of the Danish People’s Party. In Australia, Pauline Hanson is the founder and leader of the eponymous Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. In the US there are, among others, Tea Party member and former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Virginia Abernethy, a white supremacist who stood as vice-presidential candidate for the American Freedom Party.
The organisations of which these women are part do not share a common political programme. Far-right movements are heterogeneous and include people and ideologies that are contradictory. Some, such as Jobbik in Hungary and the League in Italy, maintain the most traditional ideas on women’s role in society. Others, such as the NR in France and the Sweden Democrats, claim they want to see women empowered. Some promote homophobic ideas. For example, the Polish Law and Justice Party has launched a new backlash against LGBT+ rights, which the party’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński called “a threat to civilisation, not just for Poland but for the entire Europe, for the entire civilisation that is based on Christianity.” At the same time others, such as Geert Wilders, Party for Freedom leader in the Netherlands, speak in support of LGBT+ rights. But as women’s rights have become a rallying call, leading women in the far right increasingly use their specific appeal as women to articulate their racist ideology and win support.
The role of women in the far right is an area of study that has, until recently, been under-researched. This gap in scholarship is in part because historically all aspects of the history of women’s lives, labour and political involvement have often been deemed unworthy of study. Precisely because the fascist organisations of the 1930s were so male-dominated and male-led, women’s roles in them were not seen as significant. Kathleen Blee, an academic who has carried out substantial work on this subject, writes that women’s involvement in the recent resurgence of the far right has been particularly overlooked because:
Women are seen as apolitical in their own right, attached to the racist movement only through the political affiliations of their husbands, boyfriends, or fathers. The logic is circular: Organised racism is a male province. Women who join must be the ideological appendages of racist men. Thus, women’s attitudes, actions and motivations are derivative, incidental and not worthy of scholarly consideration.42
Implicit in these views is the assumption that women lack agency, and whatever agency they do have won’t be affected by racist ideology.43 Mudde has even claimed there is a “feminist bias” among researchers that leads to a disbelief that women might subscribe to far-right ideas.44 The reality is that racist ideas are not exclusive to men. Women can and will support, vote for and join far-right organisations.45 One study concluded that, even where men outnumber women members “men are not more likely than women to possess these kinds of feelings about race. In fact, on each question, a slightly higher percentage of women expressed these attitudes”.46
Of course, the fact that women have given any support to far-right parties can seem to be counterintuitive when so much of the ideology rejects any belief in women’s equality. But as socialists we understand that the experience of oppression does not automatically lead to a sense of solidarity with other sections of society suffering discrimination. It doesn’t even mean that oppressed people are always driven to fight back against their own oppressors. Sometimes oppression can lead to alienation and a feeling of powerlessness and people can perceive the origins of their situation as rooted among those that are close by, rather than what can seem like abstract structural causes involving how society is organised.
Women’s experience of inequality does not immunise them against racist ideas. Analysis of the Tell Mama (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) project in Britain, which monitors and collates reports of anti-Muslim hate crimes “revealed that women were responsible for 18 percent of online incidents” reported to it. These online threats included advocating offline violence against Muslims, including posting support for killing Muslim babies and blowing up Mosques.47 Two recent studies in Britain found that “the anti-Muslim rhetoric/narrative internalised by female members was key in terms of their attraction to far-right groups”.48 When Blee studied women in the far right in the US she found that, of the women she looked at, around one-third had been arrested for “violent acts in connection with racist activism, usually for assault”.49 But nevertheless paramilitary groups, such as the Hungarian Guard and the British Combat 18, are almost exclusively male. When it comes to far-right terror acts, to date every high-profile attack has been carried out by men—for example Anders Breivik in Norway, London nailbomber David Copeland and those who carried out the attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand this year.
Why the far right needs women
The scale of the growth of far-right movements means we are now dealing with mass phenomena. Their success would not be possible without expanding their reach and breaking into new sections of the population. Far-right parties fighting elections are targeting the support of women because they know that today no political organisation can hope to be electorally successful without winning female voters. Mudde has written on the importance of the visibility of women active in, and leading in, far-right organisations because they represent such a large potential reservoir of support. There is also a belief that female involvement aids the normalisation of far-right parties seeking success in the electoral arena, by helping them appear more respectable.50 But winning female supporters in significant numbers is not simply about numerical expansion. It can signify a qualitative shift in destigmatising far-right politics, which in turn can act as an accelerator to the process of such politics extending their reach even further.
But in fact we are also witnessing a new development today. Many far-right parties are not simply reaching out to women voters. They have actually weaponised the ideology of gender and the cause of women’s equality as an intrinsic part of their racist propaganda against Muslims. We have seen examples of this in France, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, Finland and Denmark. Marine Le Pen has been the most successful in this strategy. She portrays herself as a working single mother who has to overcome the same hurdles that other working mothers face. She talks of “constantly juggling work, shopping, children and this wretched feeling of guilt planted in the heart of every mother”.51 This is in sharp contrast to the views of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, on women’s roles when he was FN leader. He railed against “the professional promotion of women outside the family, sexual egalitarianism… Although men and women are profoundly different, and although nature has programmed women to assure the reproduction of the species as their essential task, the feminisation of society has turned them away from the vital function of reproduction”.52
Marine Le Pen has worked to distance her party from this ideological legacy, and attempted to reposition it as a defender of French secularism and Republicanism or laïcité, and women’s rights.53 Her leadership and strategy to detoxify the party have helped transform its voting base. The percentage of French women first-time voters aged between 18 and 26 who supported the FN rose from 9 to 32 percent between 1988 and 2017. “In fact, in 2017 these young women and women aged between 47 and 66 were markedly more likely than men” to support the FN.54 Women members made up less than 20 percent of the membership of the FN in the 1980s; by 2012, this had risen to 45 percent.55
Such evidence shows that the role of women in the far right is not only about a few maverick individual women leaders. Analysis of voting suggests that women now make up between a third and 40 percent of the electorate of far-right parties.56 After Trump’s victory in the US presidential election much was written about the role that the votes of white women played, and Trump himself referred to the often quoted statistic that 52 percent of women voters voted for him: “Everybody said this couldn’t happen—52 percent”.57 This figure was based on exit polls, and subsequent research challenged this figure, showing that in fact 39 percent of all women voters voted for Trump and 54 percent supported Hillary Clinton. White women, who made up 41 percent of the electorate, went for Trump by a 2-point margin, 47 percent to 45 percent, but neither candidate got a majority of their votes”.58
Pew Research showed that: “Women were 13 percentage points more likely than men to have voted for Clinton”.59 However, the popular narrative persists. Even though the majority of women did not vote for Trump, the fact that 39 percent did is still a significant figure worth examining. One successful tactic of Trump’s campaign was to label his opponent as part of the self-serving political elite, a characterisation that rang true and that Clinton did little to tackle. She portrayed her potential ascent to become the first female president as being the key victory for all women. To have a woman in the White House would, indeed, be significant. “But what her stump speeches and campaign ignored was the fact that for the vast majority of women in the US, the reality of oppression was a product not of the gender of the occupant of the White House, but of the policies of the US ruling class, policies that she was committed to continue”.60
Appealing to all women as if they have common interests as a gender is not a strategy that will combat the far right, who use class divisions and bitterness to portray themselves as the only people committed to representing the interests of “ordinary” women and men. This was certainly true of the Trump campaign, which overtly appealed to working class voters, despite the fact that Trump is a billionaire businessman.
The use of the rhetoric of opposing political elites to undermine support for rival women politicians has not only been seen in Trump’s populist political campaigning. The Sweden Democrats attack the Swedish Social Democrats in the same way, claiming that all the Social Democrats are interested in is the “salaries and chief positions for Swedish women, but apparently they don’t care about the freedom of immigrant women and the culturally conditioned suppression, violence and sexualised violence that too many women experience”.61 Note that here there is an explicit appeal to class differences among women, as well as a claim that the far right are the true champions of immigrant women, all embedded in an implicit racist message about immigrant communities.
Women’s rights as Western values
Today, women’s rights, even their liberation, are portrayed as being uniquely associated with “Western” values and modernity. This has been a feature of government policy across continents and different political parties. Labour prime minister Tony Blair joined the then Republican US president George W Bush to use the cause of women’s liberation as one of the many different justifications for waging war in Afghanistan from 2001. Within such narratives the existence of women’s oppression in all societies, including in the West, is ignored. Instead sexism is seen as something associated with other lands, other cultures and other peoples. Immigrants, specifically Muslim immigrants, are portrayed as importing sexist ideas and practices into the West. In her book In the Name of Women’s Rights Sara Farris points out that: “The portrayal of the Netherlands, France and Italy as countries where women’s rights and sexual liberation are an everyday reality is developed in seeming contrast to stereotypical images of non-Western cultures and societies as patriarchal, misogynistic and homophobic”.62
She argues that this process has seen the politics of gender equality being “ethnicised”. Elsewhere it has been termed the “racialisation of sexism”.63 It is important to remember that the far right did not invent this racist narrative. Increasing levels of Islamophobia in society have been fuelled by years of propaganda from politicians and the media. This was whipped up by Bush’s and Blair’s “War on Terror” in 2001, and was followed by the attacks on multiculturalism led by former Tory prime minister David Cameron and German chancellor Angela Merkel in 2010 and 2011. More recently we have seen the Italian and Hungarian governments use the moral panic about refugees in order to legitimise the brutal policing of “Fortress Europe”. In Britain, Islamophobia is endemic within the Tory Party. In August 2018 Boris Johnson used his Telegraph column to compare women who wore the niqab with “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”.64 He refused to apologise and was cleared by a Conservative Party code of conduct panel, which deemed it “satire”. The far right have consistently picked up and driven this rising Islamophobia most effectively to their advantage.
Significantly, Western women are often portrayed as modern, liberated women who are sexually available, whose bodies are visible and uncovered. This is in contrast to the images produced by earlier forms of this reoccurring racist trope, with white women as virginal innocents threatened by non-white predatory males. Across Europe, immigrants and Muslim men are portrayed as predators who don’t understand “progressive” Western culture, and so are a threat to Western white women’s liberated lives, as well as to Muslim women within their own communities. This was seen in the reaction to allegations of sexual harassment and assault on New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne. Rather than being seen as crimes to be investigated, the events led to a call for an end to immigration and to taking in refugees and asylum seekers. Syrian refugees in particular were, wrongly, blamed as being responsible for the attacks.65
These racist narratives are expressed in many different ways but have common themes. “Tommy Robinson”, formerly of the English Defence League, uses them in their crudest form. He deploys campaigns about child abuse in order to portray all Muslim men as dangerous paedophiles who represent a threat to white girls. In particular he campaigns about what has become known as “street grooming”, a term that has no official basis. This term has become used solely to describe child abuse when conducted by Muslim men. It echoes the rise of the term “mugging” in the 1970s, which also had no official basis and was used uniquely to describe any street crime carried out by black perpetrators.
There is a scandal at the heart of many recent child abuse cases in Britain, in particular the fact that the police and other authorities did not listen to young women, and men, when they made complaints about what was happening to them. This exposed the police’s disdain for the lives of working class young people, rather than what the far right claims was a fixation on political correctness that led them to overlook crimes by Muslim perpetrators.66 Such far-right campaigns are also dangerous because they distract from the reality that the vast majority of people who abuse children and young people are white.
However, the far right’s racist message about the supposed threat Muslim men pose to Western women and girls is not always so crude. It is also played out in more sophisticated but no less dangerous ways. So now, because the Western women who need “protecting” are seen as sexually active and liberated, it has become a battle not simply to protect them, but to defend sexual liberation itself from the threat posed by immigrants. Far-right parties “treat gender equality as a standard against which a superior national self can be measured against inferior foreign others”.67 For example, in Italy, “the mobilisation of the issue of gender equality against Muslim migrants in particular began—at least explicitly and vocally—with the LN’s [the League’s] 2005 campaign against negotiations for a possible entry of Turkey into the EU”.68
In France, Marine Le Pen represents migrants “as a threat to the family and as a sexual threat to female citizens but also as a threat to gender equality, the connection between the essentialistic construction of gender and the family on the one hand, and of cultural difference and the nation on the other, is maintained at the heart of the NF ideology today”.69 She portrays French culture in particular and Western values in general as symbolic of women’s equality. She refers to the “free and self-confident woman that our model of French culture has constructed throughout its history”.70 She regularly raises the alleged threat that immigration poses to women, saying: “I am revolted today by the unacceptable silence and, therefore, tacit consent of the French left in the face of these fundamental attacks on the rights of women. I am scared that the migrant crisis signals the beginning of the end of women’s rights”.71
Sometimes she doesn’t attack Muslims overtly, but the target of her rhetoric is unmistakable: “In France we respect women, we don’t beat them, we don’t ask them to hide themselves behind a veil as if they were impure. We drink wine when we want, we can criticise religion and speak freely”.72 On International Women’s Day in 2017 she wrote a post called, “With Me, French Women Will Stay Free” in her regular blog, Notebooks of Hope. This focused on what she posed as the greatest threat to women’s rights: “The rise of Islamist fundamentalism in our neighbourhoods and in our cities”.73
Such ideology forms the basis of state policing of immigration and of Muslims across Europe. So when the French state banned the wearing of the hijab in schools in 2004 (the ban was against “ostentatious religious symbols”) it was done in the name of women’s rights.74 There was no acknowledgement of the impact this would have on the lives of Muslim women and girls who wore the hijab. This legislation was followed in 2010 by a state ban of “face covering garments” in public spaces, which effectively made criminals of the small minority of Muslim women who wore a niqab. At the time there was much debate about the need for such a law when the number of women who wore the niqab in France was so small. In 2009, internal French security services estimated that 1,900 women actually wore the niqab, of the 1.5 to 2 million adult Muslim women who lived in France. “This figure of 1,900, however, came because the secret service initially came up with a figure of 367, which was deemed to be so low they were asked to count again”.75 This law was not about controlling the clothing of a few hundred women, it was about making a statement “that sexism is the exclusive domain of the Muslim Other”.76
The French government’s marginalising of Muslim women under the guise of empowering them was assisted by the support of sections of the left and a number of leading feminists, who repeated the narrative that wearing the hijab was an oppressive act imposed by men. Women wearing hijabs have been refused entry into feminist meetings. Most recently a French organisation, the International League for Women’s Rights, has called for a ban on athletes who wear the hijab at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.77 Christine Delphy, who opposed the anti-hijab laws, wrote of their impact: “Women wearing the headscarf are little by little being excluded from jobs in the public sector, and now in the private sector as well—in the name of their emancipation. As parents, they are now excluded from accompanying their children on school outings”.78 Different laws banning niqabs or burkas in public places, or in certain jobs, such as teaching, are now also in place in parts of Switzerland, Russia and Italy, as well as nationwide in Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Austria and Norway.79 German teachers are also banned from wearing headscarves in eight of Germany’s 16 states.
The view that the key attribute of being a “liberated” woman is to be uncovered was played out on beaches in the south of France in the summer of 2016. The administrations in more than 15 coastal towns with FN mayors banned the wearing of the burkini, a form of modest swimwear, on their beaches. Police were called to tell Muslim women sitting on the beach in burkinis to undress or leave the beach.80 The highest administrative court in France, the State Council, overturned the ban that same year, although at least one FN mayor continued to try and impose bans in 2017. In Germany, the AfD ran an election advertising campaign in 2017 that included posters with the image of two women in bikinis with the slogan: “Burkas? We prefer bikinis”.81 This fixation with the unveiling of women, and forcing them to be uncovered has long been a feature of colonial rule, and was highlighted by Frantz Fanon in his writing about the Algerian liberation struggle against the French, when he wrote that removing the veil from women was so important to French forces because “the occupier was bent on unveiling Algeria”.82
Far from empowering women, laws imposing a certain form of dress on any women deny them any agency in fundamental decisions about expressing their religion or choosing what clothing to wear. Women from all backgrounds too often find themselves judged on their appearance and under pressure to conform to expected norms, criticised for covering up too much, but also for showing what is judged to be too much of their bodies. Socialists believe that all of us have a right to wear what we choose without judgment.
Western European states have used the cause of women’s rights, and also LGBT+ equality, to police “integration” and even rights to citizenship of immigrants, a development that again has been taken up and driven further by the far right. The Netherlands was the first country in Europe to demand that migrants demonstrate a knowledge of Dutch language and society with the passing of the Civic Integration Abroad Act in 2006. An associated test became a “precondition for admission”, although significantly, migrants from other EU and Western countries were exempt, as were those from Australia, Canada, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, South Korea, the US and the Vatican City. Also exempt were “highly skilled” migrants.83 In France, gender equality, framed as part of the values of the French republic, became part of the obligatory integration process in the Contract of Integration established in 2006.84 Among the many other countries that now use a compulsory test for citizenship is Britain with its “Life in the UK” test, which includes a section on: “The Values and Principles of the UK” as well as a section titled “A Long and Illustrious History”.
In Denmark the far right also raised the theme of uncovering in the debate about its citizenship test. The Danish People’s Party complained in 2010 when a video “A Life in Denmark”, made to show to immigrants applying for residency, did not include images of topless women. Søren Espersen MP of the DPP said in a radio debate: “It’s important to send a signal to the young girls who come here that now they’re getting away from the puritanical society that they’ve lived in…and which we had here too in the old days. Now they’re coming to a country where there’s freedom… Here you can be free, here you can be yourself”.85 Commitment to gender equality is now a condition of Danish residency. The declaration on integration and active citizenship in Danish society, which all immigrants and refugees must sign when seeking permanent residence in Denmark, states: “I acknowledge that men and women have equal rights and duties in Denmark, and that both men and women should contribute to society.”
Family, fertility and the far right today
The strategy of using the cause of women’s rights to legitimise racist policies is not shared across all far-right organisations. There are still those who are committed to the traditional far-right model of a women’s role in society being shaped by “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” and this doesn’t stop at propaganda. Policies that both deny rights to contraception and abortion services have gone alongside inducements to certain women to have large families in Poland, Italy and Hungary. Today, although the ideology on women is not simply lifted from the 1930s, we see ominous echoes of the fascist “public cult of motherhood” and eugenic fertility policies being revisited.
For example, Viktor Orbán in Hungary used his annual state of the nation speech in February this year to announce the introduction of a loan system to encourage higher birthrates. This means that married couples under the age of 40 would receive £27,400 in low-interest loans. With the birth of each child the repayments would be postponed and the loan would be written off on the birth of a third child. If a woman had a fourth child she would not pay tax for the rest of her life. There is even the offer of financial support to buy a car that can seat seven people.86 The link between reproductive rights and racism was made explicit, with Orbán saying of Western governments: “They want as many migrants to enter as there are missing kids, so that the numbers will add up. We Hungarians have a different way of thinking. Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender”.87 Jobbik, Hungary’s second largest party, advocates clamping down on abortion alongside “targeted allocation of family support”, to those it regards as “Hungarian” families. Such a policy will, it claims, stop “childbearing for a living”, an accusation deliberately playing to racist stereotypes of Roma people, while promising financial rewards to those it wants to encourage to reproduce.88
These views are not isolated cases. In the Netherlands, Wilders has articulated them by posing the fertility rates of Muslim migrants as a threat to the country, calling it a “Tsunami of Muslims”, a phrase that saw him taken to court for incitement to racial hatred.89 In Italy, when the League announced a new Land for Children plan in the budget at the end of 2018 in order to reward women with big families, it was denounced as “neo-medieval” and reminiscent of Mussolini’s rule.90 Under this scheme plots of state-owned farmland would be given to parents to run for 20 years if they have a third child between 2019 and 2021. If they build their first home on their plot they would receive an interest-free loan of up to £175,000. Former FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen also promoted this ideology, saying: “We want to have many more French mothers having French babies to keep the country full of Frenchmen and will pay them to stay at home and breed proud healthy people”.91
These policies treat some women as breeding machines and deny others the right to choose to have children and are barely repackaged from the past. They find support from far-right religious groups such as the Agenda Europe network, whose project’s aim is clear from its name: Restoring the Natural Order.92 Millions have fought long and hard in the past to challenge politicians and ideologues who want to define women by their fertility. It is a world to which they are not willing to return.
There has been inspiring resistance to the far right’s attacks on women’s rights across Europe and in north and south America. In Poland, the #CzarnyProtest (Black Protest) and #StrajkKobiet (Women’s Strike) that erupted to oppose the draconian changes to abortion laws, successfully blocked those attacks. A small group of courageous women demanding abortion rights also directly confronted the far right on the day 100,000 took part in its mass demonstration in Warsaw in October 2018. In Italy, tens of thousands of pro-choice demonstrators took to the streets of Verona in the same month to oppose the World Congress of Families referred to above. In Germany, more than 100,000 marched in Berlin, also in October 2018, to protest against the racism of the AfD, and in Brazil the theme of this year’s Rio Carnival was resistance to the sexism of Bolsonaro. The spirit of this opposition shows the potential to build resistance to the resurgence of the far right at a time when women have been fighting back as part of #MeToo and other movements across the globe. In Europe, the picture on women’s rights is not just one way. A groundbreaking victory in 2018 pushed back the bigots in Ireland when the Repeal the Eighth campaign won the provision of legal abortion services there for the first time, an achievement that can give confidence to those struggling against far right attacks on reproductive rights.
There is no doubt about the threat that the rise of the far right represents to women and many of the fundamental rights we have won over the past 50 years. Resisting these movements means challenging them ideologically as well as opposing their mobilisations. As this article has highlighted, far-right parties have also presented us with a new challenge. They have explicitly woven “pro-women” rhetoric into their racist message in order to build support. This means we have to show that the fights against racism and against women’s oppression cannot be separated. The experience of recent years across Europe is stark. This is contested ground and it is undeniable that the use of women’s rights to demonise Muslims has gained traction. We cannot allow the far right any room to claim they “champion women”. One oppressed group will never make gains by further oppressing another. Instead we must make the socialist case for opposing fascism and the far right and fighting for women’s liberation based on united struggles for emancipation for all.
Judith Orr is the author of Abortion Wars: the Fight for Reproductive Rights and Marxism and Women’s Liberation.
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